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SASHA’S STORY

 

 

She sat down and tried to breathe slowly. After a while she got up and splashed her face. She hid her eyes in the towel and said aloud, ‘I imagined it.’

Nevertheless, she avoided the mirror and went into the garden. She could see over the thorn hedge into the top field, where the hands were cutting grass for winter. The grass was tall and thick and the weather hot. Sasha thought how her husband would be pleased, which made her remember the mirror. ‘It frightened me,’ she thought.

It had happened after breakfast, when she was putting on her make-up. She was glancing between the mirror and the jar of paste, but then she stopped. She was looking with astonishment into the mirror. Instead of her reflection, she saw her husband staring out at her.

Now she put a hand to her throat. She said aloud, ‘Perhaps it’s an omen.’

Her husband had left the day before. He had gone to the town to see what price was being paid for pigs. If the price was good, he would kill a dozen of their animals. He was due back tomorrow, yet now he had stared out from her mirror. 

She did not look in the mirror again that day.

 

Next morning was bright, with the promise of more autumn heat. Sasha woke slowly, and was washing in front of the mirror when she remembered the vision. She looked up, but saw only her own face.

It was good that the vision had passed. But she was superstitious, and again thought, ‘An omen.’ In the mirror her husband had seemed bewildered, as if lost.

Towards lunchtime she began to watch for him. She stood in the garden, staring at the ridge across the valley, where he would appear. First she would see the old grey horse, panting from the climb, its head plunging up and down. Then the shafts of the wagon. Then finally her husband hunched low over the reins, his hat on square and pulled down tight to his eyebrows.

She wanted to prepare herself. She went inside, taking up the jar of paste. She came to the mirror and again saw her husband’s face. The jar smashed on the floor.

 

‘He is dead,’ she thought.  

She lay on their marriage bed, her hand stretched to where he should lay, while the afternoon sun moved slowly across her. He would not come home. What could she do? She was alone, and the winter was coming. Would she go back to her father? Or would he come here, to live at the farm? In the mirror her husband had again seemed bewildered, as if wanting her to explain.

While Sasha fretted, her oldest hand, Fedya, was leading the great boar over the hill. They were going to the turnip field, newly dug, where the boar would turn up roots and worms. But the animal was lazy, admirably fat. Suddenly it sat down.

‘Very hot,’ said Old Fedya, and did not pull the rope. He wiped his face, the sun beating down. ‘A good harvest-time, old pig.’

Then he squinted down the hill. There was a movement among the bushes by the brook. Someone was pushing through the thorns. Hot and tired, Fedya stood and watched, although now the boar was raising itself. Finally he saw the man clearly. It was Stepan, the master’s young brother, and he was following the old fence, now overgrown, as if he wished to trace the boundary of the master’s land.

The young man looked up. He saw Fedya and smiled, waving his arm in a great arc.

‘A nice boy,’ said Old Fedya to the pig. But it was hot and Stepan was far off. Fedya turned to plod over the hill.

 

‘Come home,’ said Sasha. She was sitting in front of the mirror. Her husband looked sadly out at her. She had drawn the curtains, but the evening sun shone through and lit her face and her husband’s face. She wasn’t frightened now, but her face was sad because her husband’s face was sad. They were almost like a normal person and a normal reflection.

Meanwhile her husband’s younger brother was leaning on the wall of the pigpens. The animals tottered around in the heat, or rooted through the piles of turnips, or lay in great grey heaps in the shadows inside the handsome brick sties. For a while Stepan tried to count them, but there were too many.

 

Next day, Sasha stood for hours in the garden, staring at the ridge across the valley. In turn, she was watched by the farmhands, because she was all that a country girl might be. She was bosomy and her hair was full. She had walked so many country roads that her cheeks were pink and her legs shapely. She spoke slowly and not often. It seemed to her that things happened too quickly, that a new thing happened while she was considering the last one. Before she was married, this had not been a difficulty, because her father resembled her. The clock would tick on the wall, and her father would sit at the kitchen table while she sewed or read her Bible, and he would clear his throat, and at last speak.

One day he had said in his heavy jovial way, ‘So. Now you are ready to marry, I think.’ She didn’t answer, but in a few days a young man was at their kitchen door. He came in rather blunderingly, his thick boots stumping on the wooden floor, his head down so that he seemed somewhere between shy and stubborn, his face evasive. He gave a quick glance with his jaw thrust out, then the head was bowed again.

Her father was hospitable, but the young man threw his cap on the table and sat and scowled at the floor. He seemed to think that it was a dirty trick to ask him questions, and intended to shame him. He was like her father, because the clock ticked and at last he spoke. His words were addressed to both of them or neither of them. ‘We have a fifty pigs,’ he said. The clock ticked on until he spoke defiantly, as if they would disbelieve him: ‘My father is dead, so the farm is mine.’

Afterwards, her father stood murmuring with the man in the yard, while great moths circled the lantern. Her father came in and barred the door and said with a laugh, ‘Little daughter, now you’ll be married.’ In this way she was passed from one man to the other.

Her husband did not change after the marriage, as some men change. He didn’t criticise her, or drink. At first he crept about the house as if she might be frightened. Later he wore a sly grin, his head still bowed, as if their marriage were a secret joke. Finally he began to listen to her. He still thought very long, but then he would look at her and say, ‘Perhaps I will kill a pig,’ or ‘The new man is lazy. I kicked him,’ or ‘Tomorrow I will go to town.’ Then he would wait for an answer, so that they were very alike, with their dark hair and pink cheeks and their silence while the clock ticked, until she murmured, ‘Very well,’ or ‘Yes, husband.’

So now she waited for him, watching from the garden until the scullerymaid, the daughter of Old Fedya, a plump girl who was too foolish for any other farm, brought tea and sweet cakes on a tray, because she loved her mistress. In the afternoon Old Fedya came to the hedge, his cap crushed in his hands. ‘Where is the master?' he said. ‘Shall we ask in the town? Shall we ask the magistrate in the town?’

Suddenly, as if rebuking him, she said, ‘The master is in the house.'

She went indoors. Fedya said to himself, ‘Then where is his wagon? And his horse, that needs to be fed?’

Inside, Sasha drew the curtains and put on one of her husband’s jackets. She went to the mirror. In the half light her husband stared at her. He was still sad. She adopted his look of sadness, and buttoned the jacket, to more resemble him.

She touched her hair. With a vague hand she began to part it, as her husband’s hair was parted.

  

Old Fedya walked round the farmhouse to the stables. Of course the master’s wagon wasn’t there, and nor was the old grey horse that pulled it. He kicked at a pile of dirty straw. He had told the two farmboys to clean the stable, but nowadays they laughed at him. Even when he was angry they laughed. He gripped the side of a stall. Once, when he was younger, men trembled if he was angry.

Suddenly he said, ‘Ah! You!’

It was young Stepan. He was sitting on the lid of the feedbox. His smile shone in the gloom. He said, ‘Fedya, my friend. I hope you are well.’

‘Indeed, sir. Very well.’

‘I was looking at these stables. Fine stables. We should buy more horses.’

Fedya said eagerly, ‘Yes, sir. How right you are. A fine big farm like this, and your brother who sells so many fat pigs. Indeed he should have two or three horses, as Ivanovitch has. Although, truth to tell, I wish the master would come home.’

‘How we agree, Fedya. Two horses. At least two. I have a friend with a fine matched pair of greys that he wishes to sell. And perhaps a carriage, for when we visit the town, instead of that ugly wagon.’

Fedya said carefully, ‘You must ask the master.’

‘Of course,’ said Stepan, and he smiled more widely. He had a wonderful smile. It was given to all without distinction. It seemed to spring from a simple optimism. He would stand in the background, a cigarette held at his waist, and his smile said that he needn't push himself forward because the world would welcome him. ‘Yes, I’ll ask my brother,’ he said, leaping down from the feed bin, so slim and young. ‘But first I’ll talk to my sister-in-law, your mistress.’ And with a smile and a wave he strolled from the stables.

Old Fedya thought, ‘The master will never buy a matched pair. Nor a carriage.’

Stepan had never before been interested in the farm. When his father died, it had passed to the eldest son, and Stepan was unconcerned. As a boy he had played in the fields and barns, but from his youth he had ridden daily to the town, where he talked and smoked in cafes with others like himself. In his twentieth year he went to the city and wasn’t seen for months, a busy time during which his brother had replaced the tottering wooden pigsties with brick, and had laid drains in the boggy land near the brook, which could therefore be planted, and had brought home what Old Fedya called a once-in-twenty-year harvest. There were plenty of willing labourers and tradesmen, but Stepan saw that he was resented when at last he returned, his smile undimmed, for his brother’s wedding.

This was a modest affair, befitting his dull brother. And Stepan was pleased by the quiet young bride, and by her absurd father, who stood shuffling his big boots by the fire, shy at first, but later, as the vodka circulated, laughing at the wedding jokes while his daughter tried not to hear, though she had spent all her life with farmers and their jokes. Stepan bowed to the bride and kissed her fingertips, his long hair falling forward, shining and clean, his loose European suit like a rich student, enjoying her surprise.

  

‘Forgive me,’ said Sasha.

She was sitting at the mirror, and her face was sad like her husband’s. She had dressed in his clothes – a shirt and jacket and trousers and big boots. Her hair was short like a man’s. She had chopped it with the big kitchen knife, so that it was ragged and spiky. Black locks of hair lay across her lap, as did the knife.

‘Forgive me.’

She was remembering the last time her husband had gone to town. Stepan had come to the house and had lifted her dress in the corner by the dining table. He was as quick as a sparrow, that hops on and hops off. Afterwards she remembered only that at the culmination his smile had wavered and then slowly returned. After he left, she had sat down and wondered what to do – whether to tell her husband or her father or the priest, or whether this was perhaps normal and she hadn’t known because of her quiet life with her father. Next day, before she had decided these things, Stepan visited her once more.

Now he was at the door again. She looked into the mirror and into her husband’s eyes as if they had reached an agreement. She stood up. Locks of hair fell from her lap as she crossed the room.

She stood back in the shadows as Stepan came in. His smile faded when he saw the knife.

 

Old Fedya was leaving the stables when a strange figure came out through the kitchen door. He thought at first that it was the master. Then he called out, ‘Mistress,’ as she crossed the yard and went down the slope towards the brook.

He followed her down the long field, and his daughter, who had been plucking a chicken on the kitchen step, her fat knees spread to catch the feathers in her apron, followed behind crying, ‘Oh, the poor mistress.’ Her plump hand held up the apron, but feathers blew in her wake.

They ran this way through fields and woods, the old man wheezing, his daughter clutching his arm, but always Sasha speeding ahead. They came to the forest by the river, and Sasha vanished into it without a pause, although branches whipped her face. Here Fedya lost her among the undergrowth, stumbling over roots, his foolish daughter clutching his sleeve saying, ‘Oh, oh.’

They came to the master’s wagon, the old grey horse still in the shafts, weak with thirst, its reins tied so tight to a tree that the creature could only roll its eyes. Then they saw the mistress. She stood nearby, standing very straight. She was pointing to a patch of broken earth. She turned her mad face to Old Fedya and gave a great piercing scream, and the maid fainted in a cloud of feathers.

 

 

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